The History of the Coton de Tuléar

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The coton de Tulear is a small, white dog with long, cotton-like hair, black eyes and a black nose.
The coton de Tulear is a small, white dog with long, cotton-like hair, black eyes and a black nose. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

They may look dainty dogs, but coton de Tulears have got quite an adventurous history behind them. A rare breed found in Europe and North America -- but almost extinct in its native homeland of Madagascar -- the coton de Tulear's roots go back thousands of years and it is considered an ancient dog breed.

Origins in Ancient History

The Meletei, named for the Sicilian city of Melita by the ancient Romans, is the first known ancestor of the coton. The Meletei was crossbred with the Barbet -- a curly-haired, water-loving, medium-sized dog, the ancestor to breeds like poodles and Portuguese water dogs. Pups resulting from the Barbet-Meletei cross were called barbichons, descendants of which are the Maltese, bichon frise, Bolognese, Havanese, coton de Tulear and lowchen.

Traversing the Mediterranean

Because barbichons were frequently brought aboard trade ships, they made their way around the Mediterranean quite easily. These plucky little dogs kept the rat population on ships under control and served as companions to the ship's crew and passengers. Along the routes barbichons had opportunities to crossbreed with local dogs, creating new mixes in several countries. The bichon Tenerife came about when Spanish sailors brought the barbichon to the Canary Islands. The Tenerife went on to become an ancestor for the bichon frise and the coton de Tulear.

Intercontinental Breeding

Through the 1400s and 1500s, sailors, merchants and pirates brought the bichon Tenerife to the Mauritius and Reunion islands in the Indian Ocean. Somehow during its time here, the Tenerife took on a longer, straighter coat, and became known as coton de la Reunion. With ships stopping over in Madagascar while traveling between Asia and Africa, it's no wonder the coton de la Reunion made its way onto the tiny and biodiverse island of Madagascar. Here the dog was named the coton de Tulear, after the port city of Tulear in Madagascar. These dogs crossbred with the Morondava hunting dog, a hearty local breed.

Becoming the Royal Dog of Madagascar

In the 1600s the coton de Tulear caught the eye of the local Merina tribe and became a domesticated pet to the tribe's leaders. At the time a law was even passed making it illegal for common people to own these dogs, reserving them for nobles. Since then cotons have maintained their spot in the hearts of the Malagasy elite, and have been proclaimed as the "Royal Dog of Madagascar."

Return to Europe

When Madagascar got its independence from France, many Europeans traveled to the island for leisure and brought back the little white dogs. First bred in Europe in the 1960s, cotons fetched quite a high price per pup. Seeing that love for these dogs was only going to grow, Louis Petit, president of the Canine Society of Madagascar, appealed to the French Kennel Club in 1970 that the coton de Tulear become a recognized breed. The coton was accepted, and since then the breed standards have been revised three times -- in 1987, 1995 and 1999.

Crossing Yet Another Ocean

With extremely high numbers of dogs being exported in the 1970s, the Malagasy government eventually realized nearly all the cotons had been taken out of the country. In the 1980s Madagascar began regulating the export of coton de Tulears. Before these laws were put in place, Dr. Jay Russell, an American scientist studying Malagasy wildlife, brought the first coton to the United States in 1974, and began to breed them there. He founded the Coton de Tulear Club of America in 1976.

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